To find out what it’s like for lawyers who venture east, we spoke to Jowers Vargas, an expert attorney placement firm for BigLaw attorneys in Asia.
The Asian market has long been alluring to many an ambitious associate. “More than 18 years ago, when I considered a move to Asia, it was an exciting place full of new opportunities for talented professionals that wanted to take risks with their careers.” That’s Benjamin Su, a partner at Latham & Watkins in Hong Kong. “Compared to a highly structured legal market like New York, I felt like a ‘pioneer’ coming to Asia at that time (though there had already been many pioneers before me).” That said,any wannabe trailblazers reading this should recognise that “the legal market is also now more mature in Asia. There is a steady stream of young talented professionals coming to Asia each year.”
“I planned to come to Hong Kong for only a few years, and over time it became a permanent career move – after speaking with many colleagues, it was the same for them.”
If you’re entertaining the idea of lateralling to Asia, chances are you already have a good reason to do so. “Most lawyers seeking an Asia move are looking to return home. They typically have Asia ties or family in Asia and have always planned to get back after starting their legal careers in a major US-based market.” That’s according to Hong Kong-based Evan Jowers, co-founder of Jowers Vargas. Since 2007, Evan and his team have placed hundreds of US (and UK) attorneys in Asia with top Wall Street and UK magic circle firms.
There are plenty of compelling reasons why people chose to emigrate, so much so that moves “often become permanent, as Asia is such a great place to live,” says Su. Recounting his own path, he says “initially, I planned to come to Hong Kong for only a few years, and over time it became a permanent career move – after speaking with many colleagues, it was the same for them. I feel greater job satisfaction being in Asia: a greater chance to feel the impact you are making on the market.”
“Because the Asia markets are still fairly small compared to New York, it can be easier for a smart, hard-working US associate to cultivate a strong network of mentors.”
It’s an opinion shared by Yuliya Vinokurova, co-founder of Jowers Vargas. She explains that “because the Asia markets are still fairly small compared to New York, it can be easier for a smart, hard-working US associate to cultivate a strong network of mentors, sponsors, and other professional allies that can help advance their career at different stages.” For associates in Asia, that translates into “greater responsibility on transactions at lower seniority levels than their US counterparts.”
If you’re looking to Asia in the hopes that a more relaxed pace of life will follow, take heed: work/life balance differs little to that in the US. Alejandro Vargas, co-founder of Jowers Vargas, started his professional career as an associate in the Hong Kong and Beijing offices of two top Wall Street law firms. According to him, attorneys in Asian markets may be billing “on average a few hundred hours less annually, relative to New York,” but ultimately the work/life balance is on par with that of New York BigLaw.
Yang Wang, a partner at Simpson Thatcher in Beijing, expands upon this: “Clients based in Asia can be very demanding and, with apps like Wechat and Dingtalk having become many clients’ preferred means of business communication, lawyers are expected to be available on mobile devices and be highly responsive.”
The demand for attorneys’ time is reflected in the compensation. Alexis Lamb, a partner at Jowers Vargas and former Asia-based magic circle lawyer, explains that “it is standard for a US-qualified associate to receive an expat package on top of their salary and bonus – usually a cash lump sum received in addition to their paycheck.” A small number of firms even offer tuition reimbursements for schoolchildren.
A glance at the market
Before we become guilty of homogenising the largest continent on earth, it’s important to highlight some of the differences between its major hubs: Hong Kong, Singapore, mainland China, Japan, and Korea. Vinokurova emphasizes that “to the uninformed candidate, similarly globally ranked firms in any Asia market can feel quite similar to one another. The reality though is that these seemingly similar opportunities can be dramatically different platforms for your career advancement.”
Hong Kong & China
Hong Kong has the most developed legal market in Asia – offices here tend to be larger and the closest to being what most people think of as full-service. “Beijing and Shanghai offices tend to be smaller and more focused on strategic M&A transactions,” Vinokurova explains, “But for the most part, these offices function as one firm with their Hong Kong counterparts.” Jowers adds that in Hong Kong it’s typical “for an associate to have one primary practice focus, taking up 70% or more of their practice.”
"A lot of Asia-based funds practice groups have been willing to ‘retool’ well-pedigreed US associates from other corporate practices into their fund formation teams.”
There are plenty of lawyers who only speak English in Hong Kong in Pan-Asia practice teams, but Jowers points out that not having Mandarin abilities “does make it quite difficult to land a position in Hong Kong in general, and nearly impossible in Beijing and Shanghai.” It’s also common knowledge that Mandarin is notoriously hard to learn! “There are only a handful pf attorneys in the industry at top-tier firms I know of who are truly native-level fluent in both English and Mandarin. China-focused practice teams based in Hong Kong usually require Mandarin for their openings, and have a mix of native Mandarin fluent and native English fluent team members. Typically, the native English fluent team members may speak Mandarin quite fluently, but cannot draft Chinese at a professional level."
Jowers Vargas identifies the following five practice areas into which most US associates have been placed in Hong Kong:
- Capital markets. US-qualified associates are often in most demand in this practice area, depending on the state of the market. It can be broken down into three main categories in Hong Kong and China: US equity capital markets; Hong Kong equity capital markets; and debt capital markets.
- Private equity and M&A. Rapid growth of the region in the past 18 months “has attracted foreign corporations that are looking to invest in or enter the Asia markets through acquisitions, minority stakes and joint ventures,” Vargas says. “Similarly, the rise of large private and public corporates in the region have resulted in increased outbound M&A activity.” Many of these transactions are governed under New York law, hence the need for US-qualified associates.
- Fund formation. Recruiters at Jowers Vargas noticed a hiring spree in this area in the first half of 2019, specifically for those with private equity fund formation experience. As it’s still a relatively niche practice group, Jowers says “a lot of Asia-based funds practice groups have been willing to ‘retool’ well-pedigreed US associates from other corporate practices into their fund formation teams.”
- Disputes. Attorneys with on a focus on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and government enforcement are particularly valued here, as are those with experience working on complex commercial litigation and white-collar criminal defense matters.
- Venture capital/emerging growth companies. With the growth of China-based tech companies, Vargas says “US firms have likewise grown their venture capital/technology-focused practice groups in Hong Kong.”
Unlike other regions, English is the language of business in Singapore, which acts as the major financial hub for South East Asia. Naturally, the chances of landing a role here for monolinguists is higher than in other markets, though Jowers does point out that “some Singapore BigLaw openings are focused on candidates with Indian, Indonesian or other ethnicity and language skills in the region.”
“Law firms in Singapore have sizeable practices in various finance areas.”
Offices tend to be smaller than in Hong Kong (20 attorneys or less), and handle a broader range of practice areas than in Hong Kong. The main practice areas in which associates are placed include:
- Capital markets. Most US teams of firms in Singapore focus on capital markets. In particular, there is demand for associates with experience in high-yield debt capital markets. The work often spans a range of markets including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. Vargas tells us “Lots of travel can be expected in a Singapore-based Pan-Asia US capital markets practice group!”
- M&A. While most firms in Singapore focus on capital markets, there are a handful with an M&A focus. Lamb tells us that “as with Singapore-based capital markets, the M&A transactions based out of Singapore have a Southeast and South Asia focus.”
- Finance. “Due to the developing nature of many Southeast Asian and South Asian economies, the resource-richness of the region and Singapore’s economic openness, attorneys with a finance background can be in high demand,” Vinokurova says. “Law firms in Singapore have sizeable practices in various finance areas, including acquisition and leveraged finance, banking, project finance, and even aircraft financing.”
- Venture capital/emerging growth. Lamb points to “the recent proliferation of Southeast Asia and South Asia-based ‘unicorn’ tech start-ups” such as transportation network Grab, food delivery business Swiggy, hotel booking startup OYO and ‘super app’ Go-Jek. “Many firms with an SV-style practice have opened Singapore offices to take advantage of this start-up, tech surge.”
Tokyo & Korea
Unlike Hong Kong, Singapore or mainland China, “Tokyo is a much more regional market,” Vargas, explains. Capital markets again stands out as a focus, though they are almost entirely investment-grade focused. Tokyo can be one of the harder markers to penetrate as “hiring focuses on candidates with both linguistic and cultural fluency in Japanese,” Vinokurova points out.
“... a recent wave of firms building Seoul-based project finance practices.”
Korea is similarly regionally focused, with Seoul offices tending to focus on Korea-based capital markets and M&A deals. Jowers says “There has also been a recent wave of firms building Seoul-based project finance practices.”Business fluency in Korean is essential for anyone wishing to enter the market, a challenge that Vinokurova says may be compounded by the fact that “there has been a significant slowdown in lateral hiring for Korea practices for most of the past decade.”
The Ideal Candidate
Between 2007 and 2012, Jowers explains that “there was a very big building up of US associates in BigLaw in Asia.” As a result, “the majority of our US associate placements in Asia for the past seven years have been moves within Asia. There are also 2L summer classes based in Asia, especially in Hong Kong.” Plenty of talent then – which means plenty of competition.
You’ll have noticed while reading these profiles that the majority of practice areas in demand are transactional. Those with arbitration backgrounds are also desirable, however these tend to be reserved for UK-qualified individuals, given the primacy of English courts in arbitration-related proceedings. There was a build up in FCPA/government enforcement/investigations practices at US firms in Hong Kong from 2010 to 2014, but since then there has not been much expansion. As such, Lamb recommends that “junior associates should push to gain exposure to capital markets and M&A/private equity transactions to become most marketable,” adding that they should “avoid more niche practice groups such as derivatives, tax, and employee benefits.”
“Many of our placements in Asia started coming to us for career advice in law school.”
Attorneys with experience at AmLaw 50 firms are also overwhelmingly the most desirable candidates, with those coming from New York regarded as the most competitive. However, Jowers points out that “we have placed US associates from smaller US and Canada BigLaw markets like Austin, Tampa, Toronto, Dallas, Miami, Cincinnati, Seattle, San Diego, Atlanta, New Orleans and Kansas City.”
Vinokurova tells us that “JD academics are just as important in Asia at US and UK BigLaw as in US markets.” She adds that “ten years ago, there used to be more exceptions made in Asia for JD grade cut offs at firms, but today such exceptions are much less common.” Lamb points out that“an LLM who has been hired straight out of their LLM program as a full US associate by a top New York firm will be just as marketable.”
While there aren’t any notable trends in terms of when in their career an attorney should lateral to Asia, our interviewees were keen to stress that those wishing to do so should waste no time. Wang reflects that “I wish I would have been more patient and focused in the job search,” adding that “once I had decided on returning to Asia, I was eager to be just done with the process as soon as possible.” Take note – the process can be lengthy. Vinokurova says that “many of our placements in Asia started coming to us for career advice in law school and during their 2L summers, in order to make the most informed decision on practice areas and firms.”
Once the hurdle of actually getting to Asia has been overcome, Vargas says “it’s easier for a talented attorney with a commitment to Asia to stand out” than it might be in the US.Remember, offices in Asia are smaller than offices in many US markets, so “a US BigLaw attorney has more chances much earlier in their career to be the go-to counsel on major transactions for marquee institutional clients.” It means “more chances to work directly under partners who can groom you for leadership, as well as with clients who can poach you for high-level in-house roles.” BigLaw attorneys in Asia may even be given the responsibility of managing major client relationships for their firms – “this would be extremely rare in US major markets.”
“There will not be one market or one career path that meets all your expectations or any path that is risk free.”
Elaborating on this, Wang, who’s based in Beijing, underlined that attorneys should carefully consider the team they will be working with: “You are often going to be working with one particular partner (perhaps the only partner in that practice area in that office), who perhaps specializes in certain types of work.” Lamb adds that specializing also means that there are risks that an “attorney’s skill set will get too pigeonholed into the nuances of their specific geographic market, and some deal sheets can be too repetitive.”
However it’s worth remembering these words of wisdom from Daniel Yeh, head of private equity in Asia-Pacific at White & Case: “There will not be one market or one career path that meets all your expectations or any path that is risk free.” Reflecting on his own decision to move to Hong Kong just under a decade ago, he remarks: “it was a choice between a very mature private equity market in the US versus a fast-growing but still emerging market in Asia.” Yeh concedes that Asia was “definitely the riskier bet. There was certainly less visibility on how one’s practice will look like in the medium to longer term in Asia private equity, but the flipside of that uncertainty is opportunity, and the excitement as well as anxiety that accompany it.”
Jowers alone has placed around 370 US associates, counsels and partners in Asia since 2007, including Benjamin Su, Yang Wang and Daniel Yeh. “There have been so many unique and wonderful stories along the way, and many of our long-time clients and candidates have become our close friends,” he says. “There is nothing more satisfying in this business than to help a long-time friend and client land a key senior partner role on the right platform, see them grow their practice to great heights, and feel that our countless hours of advice over the years, over too many drinks and meals to remember, played a role in their success.”